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Mysterious Phone Charges

March 18, 2009 - Michael Palmer
I was looking at my phone bill, like many of yours it is 20 pages of charges for this and that, fees and taxes, by page 5 you are bored beyond belief. So any way, because of some conspiracy theory my wife had regarding our cell phone accounts, I walked through the pain and kept going.

I made it to page 18 and suddenly I am thinking someone must have made a mistake. I am being charged by some fly by night internet based telephone service for long distance service, 411 service and for web hosting.

I call the telephone company and they tell me. "You’ve been crammed." It sounds unpleasant and it is.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, "Cramming happens when a company adds a charge to your phone bill for a service you didn’t order, agree to, or use. Cramming charges can be small, say $2 or $3, and easy to overlook. But even when the phony charges aren’t small, they may sound like fees you do owe. That makes them tough to pick out, especially if your phone bill varies month to month."

So, I contact the number for the service and find that I am speaking to a billing service. Researching through the internet, I find a contact for the company and put on my 500 pound gorilla costume and give them a ring. The operator is very apologetic and provides me with an e mail that gives me the bad news, the person who allegedly signed up for the service was my daughter. There is her name, birth date, my address and phone number, and an IP address. So I do a look up for the IP Address and it says the computer from which the transaction was made is located in Virginia near Washington DC.

I am currently trying to find out just why some person in DC thinks I needed extra long distance service charges on my phone bill, I mean what is in it for them? Perhaps this person is a hacker for the long distance company? There was supposed to be a card with free minutes for long distance to be used from pay phones sent to my address, but I don't recall my daughter ever getting such a card in the mail.

The bad news, even though I had them refund the amount from last billing period, this has obviously been going on unnoticed since November to the tune of $74 a month.

So how do you avoid being a victim?

The FTC suggests: "There’s no one type of cramming charge. Some charges appear just once; others are “subscription” charges that show up every month. Keep an eye out for generic-sounding services and fees like Min. Use Fee, Activation, Member Fee, Voice Mail, or Web Hosting; they may be services you haven’t ordered. Are there calls you didn’t make? Charges for Internet services from a company you don’t know? Area codes you’ve never heard of, like 011 or 500? The charges could be for anything, including:

* long distance service * subscriptions for Internet-related services, like web hosting * access to restricted websites * entertainment services with a 900 area code * collect calls * club memberships

Check out each section of your bill, but note that crammers tend to target some “hot spots.” Pay special attention to sections labeled “Miscellaneous,” and the long-distance, 900-number, and “third-party” charge sections on your bill. Third-party charges are charges from anyone other than your phone company. Some phone companies send their customers shorter bills with little detail, but may offer more detailed bills online or upon request. To check out a sample phone bill with various charges explained, visit the Federal Communications Commission website at www.fcc.gov/cgb/phonebills/samplePhonebill.html.

If You Suspect Cramming

Not sure about a charge on your bill? Ask your phone company about it. If the charge isn’t from your phone company, the name of the company charging you should be printed nearby. Your phone company should be able to tell you more about the charge, and your statement should tell you how to dispute errors on your bill. It’s a good idea to follow-up with an email or letter sent by certified mail; ask for a return receipt. It’s your proof that the company received your letter. Keep a copy of your bill and any other documentation for your files.

Then, take the final step in fighting a cramming charge: file a complaint. Even if you get a refund, if you suspect you’ve been a victim of cramming, notify the FTC at ftc.gov, or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). You also can file a complaint with your state Attorney General’s office (visit naag.org or check the government section of your phone book for the number) or the state agency that regulates phone service in your state — often the state public service commission or public utilities commission, which you can look up on the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners website at naruc.org/commissions.cfm. Try to include the names of all the companies involved, not just your telephone company. Reduce Your Risk of Cramming

Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to prevent a determined crammer from adding fake charges to your phone bill. However, you can avoid giving would-be scammers the opportunity by being wise to some common ploys:

Enter to win. You think you’re entering a contest, but you’re actually giving your information to strangers who might be up to no good. Before you fill out a contest entry form, consider whether you know the company, and be sure to read the fine print. Shady promoters sometimes use an entry form as “permission” to enroll you in a service. You find out you’re enrolled only if you notice the fee on your phone bill.

Join the club. The ad says it’s free, and in fact, the number you call to join may be toll-free. All you have to do is say your name and “I want the service.” But you may end up enrolled in a club or service program that comes with a monthly charge on your phone bill.

“Free” calls. You may be calling to claim a “free prize,” but 900 numbers aren’t free. “Free minutes” offers may not be free, either: you’re put on hold and the hold time counts toward your free minutes, which results in a charge to you. In some cases, you should have some warning — every 900 number that costs more than $2 has to have a brief introductory message about the service, the service provider, and the cost of the call. After that, you have three seconds to hang up without incurring any charge.

Another option to help stop cramming is to block some services. A 900-number block stops calls to 900 numbers from going through. Blocks also are available for international, long distance, and local toll calls, as well as to third-party services. Check with your phone company about the costs of different blocking options, and make sure you understand the range of calls or services that will be included in a block. With a mobile phone, 900-number calls are automatically blocked, but you may be allowed to block other services like Internet access or text messaging.

If you use a telephone modem for Internet access, you can prevent a specific type of cramming by making sure you’re using up-to-date security software. Otherwise, you’re leaving the door open to scammers who use malicious software programs to download “dialer programs” to susceptible computers. The program redirects your modem, causing it to dial an international or 900-number. You find out when you see the charge on your phone bill.

The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The FTC enters consumer complaints into the Consumer Sentinel Network, a secure online database and investigative tool used by hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. "

If you are still reading this, congratulations, you are a smarter consumer and now have the tools to prevent some of the people who are out there working feverishly 24-7 to rip us off. I have put the blocking option on my home phone service and will contact the FTC, BBB and State Attorney General about my experience with Cramming.

 
 

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